Sunday, May 14, 2006

Fall upfronts preview

The TV networks announce their fall schedules tomorrow. Recently, I virtually sat down with Jace from Televisionary and my friend Jon (who comes in at the VERY end) to discuss what's what.

Todd: First, let's see what I thought might happen a couple of months ago.

ABC
CBS
The CW
Fox
NBC

Obviously, a lot has changed. Vanished and Primary, two shows I wrote off for Fox, have both gotten pickups. Many of the things I THOUGHT might happen are moving closer to being realities (moving Grey's and ER, etc.). And the networks are REALLY going out of their way to pick stuff up early.

But let's stay away from the questions everyone is asking (Will Grey's move to Mondays?) and look at some bigger issues. I think I've found five that are going to be interesting to consider.

Now, what the hell is ABC going to do with Lost? It's clear this show has a solid fanbase still (which could probably get back up in the 18 million range), but the American Idol competition and the reruns (sigh) are hurting it as well. I thought they would try to develop a big hit to run as a companion with it this season to allow it to run straight through in season four, but they appear to be trying to fix the problem right away.

Three suggestions have been floated. a.) Run the show in three big chunks of eight episodes each, offering up big cliffhangers at every break. b.) Run the show in TWO big chunks, allowing a reality show or something (Masters of Science Fiction?) to run in the ten weeks or so in between. c.) Run the show straight through, either at the beginning or end of the TV season (the end makes more sense, since at the beginning, they would run in to Christmas). I'm guessing solution b. is what ends up happening, but it's really anybody's call.

Jace: I'd have to agree with you, Todd. I think that ABC has learned that reruns never bode well for a serialized drama like Lost and they might take a page out of FOX's playbook and schedule the series more or less like FOX does with 24. However, I can't see them holding onto one of their cash cows until January, so I'd have to predict that they split the show into two more or less equal parts, running the first half beginning in September/October (or even, God forbid, August) and then the second half in February in time for sweeps.

Of course, they could also take Lost out of American Idol's line of fire and push it back to its original Wednesdays at 8 pm timeslot, a move which might infuriate the show's slightly older audience. 8 was always a little too early for this series (I feel the same way about CBS' Amazing Race, which to me was always a 9 pm show).

Todd: Or they may cross their fingers and hope American Idol DOES move to Wednesdays and Thursdays. One would assume if AI's performance show were on Wednesdays, it would lead in to Bones, which would be much easier competition than the mothership itself.

The only problem with running the show in two separate chunks (which I agree would probably be the best way to do it) is that they have NOTHING to put in there in between. Still, Masters of Science Fiction would probably attract a similar audience, without having the detriment of featuring over-arching mythology. And I really think ABC's promo department is the best working right now. They should have ample opportunity to tease its return. And the big break worked (on a much more limited scale) for Prison Break. I don't see why TV's biggest pure-serial hit couldn't have a similar reception.

But IS Fox going to move American Idol?

House can credibly stand on its own. So Tuesdays may not NEED AI anymore. And the show is almost certainly going to see a slide in ratings in season six. So why not move it to Wednesday/Thursday, where more advertising revenue would be had anyway. PLUS, they can blame the slide in viewership on being on a more competitive night (Thursday), which would work out well for them. But it's still quite risky.

Jace: I don't see Fox doing something quite as daring as moving AI off of Tuesdays. This is, after all, the same network that is bringing back The O.C., despite critical and viewer backlash this season (and I have a feeling it will remain on Thursdays regardless) (since Jace wrote these words, Fox did, indeed, bring back The O.C.--TV). AI gives Fox stability on Tuesday (although, yes, House does seem to be standing on its own) and Wednesdays as well, with its results show. Moving AI now would be way too risky when they've seen that they have the competition on the run two nights already, even if viewing figures dip a little next season. As I said earlier, I think The O.C. will remain on Thursdays rather than risk running it into the ground even further... AI, I think, will stay put.

Todd: I agree The O.C. will be back. It shouldn't be, but if they get one more full season out of it, they'll have just over 90 episodes (thanks to the super-long first season), which should be enough for syndication and cable rerun dollars.

And I'm less sure Fox will move AI than I was back in March. They'll always hold it out there as a threat, but they'll probably just leave it where it is. And eventually, some brave network will take it on and figure out a way to beat it.

But for now, the singers stay put.

Speaking of things that are ridiculously popular (awkward segue), is CBS eventually just going to build a schedule so strong that they won't need to develop pilots?

Because, honestly, it's hard to find holes. And they're going to get to a place where a 9-10 million performer like How I Met Your Mother is going to be seen as something worth canceling. They've got exactly TWO weak spots (that lead-off hole on Wednesdays and the Sunday night movie). On the other hand, if next year is the year when crime procedurals slip in popularity, CBS is screwed (and we're seeing slight signs of that starting to happen).

Jace: I don't think CBS, or any network, can ever afford to stop developing pilots. Yes, How I Met Your Mother and (to a lesser extent) The Unit and Old Christine have performed well this season, but for every success story, there's a Courting Alex or Out of Practice as well. CBS has already announced that they are jettisoning the Sunday night movie, which frees up that night as well. While police procedurals might dip a little in popularity (hopefully), I think they are not going away quite yet, though all of them are starting to show signs of their age.

While CBS won't ever stop making or developing pilots, I do think we'll start to see them developing projects that could fly at either CBS or sister network the CW... as they are doing with comic book adaptation Ultra, which insiders say is being retooled for consideration at the CW. It's smart business. I think that CBS needs to be able to take some risks while redesigning their overall network image, which seems to be the network of police procedurals, some comedies, and Amazing Race and Survivor. It's time to really strive to develop a HOT, buzzed about drama that isn't your standard missing persons/forensics show.

Todd: I was (mostly) kidding about the pilot-free season. And I've been predicting fatigue with CBS-style crime shows for the last two years without seeing it truly, truly happen. For example, I really thought Criminal Minds would fail, but it attracted an audience, and that surprised me. And it looks as though they're not relying on crime drama pilots for next year, which is also smart (Jericho really looks interesting -- I have a great interest in apocalyptic scenarios).

I think it's a mistake to move Without a Trace. I know it could stand on its own, but it's not a show that's going to suddenly burst out into an even bigger hit like Grey's could do. It would make them competitive on Sundays, but at what cost?

And that's a damn good idea with The CW. Ultra always sounded like it might be more up that network's alley anyway.

Now, on to the two networks with bigger problems. ABC and NBC.

First, just what is ABC going to renew anyway?

Outside of their big six (Desperate Housewives, Grey's Anatomy, Lost, Boston Legal, Dancing with the Stars, Extreme Makeover: Home Edition), ABC is surprisingly weak. They're sort of in the position CBS was in a few years ago, when that network could see No. 1 was within reach, even though they had just come off a year when none of their shows clicked (Wolf Lake? though that show has fan fiction, I kid you not). CBS, of course, buckled down and found good companions for hits like CSI and Everybody Loves Raymond and made it all work. And I suspect, with the incredibly strong development slate it has, that ABC might do the same.

That said, they can't just renew six shows (one of which runs seasonally). They need to bring some middling stuff back so people have familiar faces to latch on to (this is why, awful ratings aside, I'll refuse to believe Commander-in-Chief is dead until it's dead).

They can go two directions, I think: critically acclaimed shows or shows that have all right ratings (and are close to syndication).

If they go with the former, they probably bring back some combination of Invasion (which has managed to move out in front of C-i-C simply by virtue of not losing ALL of its viewers), Sons & Daughters (which strikes me as being roughly similar to The Office -- a show that no one knew what to do with which could garner a cult following in a second season), What About Brian (to, I dunno, capitalize on the middling reviews for the pilot and keep J.J. Abrams happy) and Commander-in-Chief (which could still find its creative footing and bring back viewers -- I mean, it's got GEENA DAVIS). You could probably throw Crumbs in there somewhere too if you really wanted to.

If they go with shows that have middling ratings and/or are close to syndication, they'll re-up According to Jim, Hope & Faith and American Inventor (to pair with DwtS, I suppose).

I say they'll split the difference and take two from each category, which would leave plenty of room for their truly AWESOME slate of pilots, while not giving the impression that they're a network in chaos.

I'm sure you'll disagree.

Jace: I think that ABC has got to take a strong look at their current schedule but I agree that yes, they'll be bringing back some stuff that's middling rather than just chucking the lot. That said, I think that Commander in Chief and Sons & Daughters are going the way of all flesh and won't be back next season (sorry, Todd). Putting aside the huge ratings slide of Commander and the fact that the network has pulled the series from their May sweep sked -- instead burning off the remaining episodes next month -- I think that the behind-the-scenes shenanigans and regime changes that the series has faced in just its first season alone makes the show less than desirable for ABC. It definitely started out strong enough but has been hemorrhaging viewers from week to week. I can't see them bringing this back unless they shunt it over to Saturday nights, where they'll have a convenient excuse as to why viewership figures are so low.

As for Sons & Daughters, I really don't think it ever found an audience, even as a "cult" comedy. Add to that the fact that the show's consulting producer Wil Calhoun signed "a two-year, seven-figure overall deal with NBC Universal Television" yesterday to work on other shows... which leads me to believe that is a goner.

I do see ABC bringing back American Inventor and Invasion, though; both seem to have gained some notice from (limited) viewers, making it a good call to renew these over other choices. What About Brian? Unless ABC wants to be nice to sister unit Touchtone, I can't see them renewing this middle-off-the-road series, even to make nice to J.J. Abrams. Unless, of course, they shunt this over to a random night of the week. Saturday, anyone?

As for According to Jim and Hope and Faith? I foresee them returning... though not Less than Perfect. Which could be a description of ABC's schedule as a whole...

Todd: I'm sorry I left the impression I really liked C-i-C (I thought it was pretty mediocre). Sons & Daughters, of course, is dear to my heart, but I'm completely aware there's about an 80% chance it won't be back (what with Gillian Vigman signing on to My Ex-Life and the Calhoun deal and. . .). I do agree that Invasion will be back, thanks to the "lucky break" that it lost all of its viewers early on, rather than later, like C-i-C did. And you're probably right about Jim and Hope. Though, oddly enough, I could see Hope coming back and not Jim. It's close enough to syndication that another season would probably push it up over the hill (one of the things ABC used to do is renew shows with low ratings but high episode counts for limited seasons to get them to syndication -- Hangin' With Mr. Cooper is a good example).

Your comments about Saturday are interesting. Somebody's going to try to develop that night sometime in the next few years. I'm wondering who it will be? ABC does seem like a good bet.

And they don't need Brian to appease J.J. They can always pick up Six Degrees, which looks rather likely.

(A few days after we had this discussion, ABC picked up According to Jim, What About Brian and The George Lopez Show. They got rid of Sons & Daughters, and it seemed they were ditching Invasion too, though Warner Brothers, the studio that produces Invasion, was trying to work out a last minute deal. -- TV)

Finally, NBC. Just how many stupid moves will they make?

Will they turn Deal or No Deal into a nightly show? Will they continue to stick with The Apprentice? Will they somehow squander the great, built-in audience they have from football? Or are they truly ready to shake things up? The Thursday comedies move was a good one, but will Jeff Zucker let Kevin Reilly do the crazy stuff NBC needs to do to keep from slipping even farther? And where will Scrubs end up? NBC or ABC?

Jace: Of course, NBC will continue to make any number of idiotic moves as we move into next season! That's their modus operandi. (And, yes, I foresee a scary proliferation of Deal or No Deal on the schedule as the fill in any slots with this inane game show.) NBC needs to take some serious risks and shake up their entire schedule. (Which in picking up Crossing Jordan, ER, Las Vegas, all three Law & Orders, Medium, Earl, The Office doesn't leave much room.) I think that the pilots they've ordered this far have at least been a step in the right direction.

Vanished has the potential to become a must-see serialized drama and Studio 60 has the pedigree of Aaron Sorkin and a top-flight cast. I also see them ordering Heroes for next season in an attempt to find their own Lost. Yes, The Apprentice will be back next season with an LA-based cycle... which will probably sound the death knell for the once-mighty franchise. I think that NBC will probably move My Name is Earl and The Office to Thursdays at 8 with Scrubs at 9 and then either the Untitled Tina Fey Project or Andy Barker P.I. at 9:30, in an attempt to regain traction on Thursdays and reestablish the night as a must-see comedy block on NBC. Will it be successful? Will it be enough? Only time will tell...

Todd: I've had this Thursday schedule penciled in for NBC since Andy Barker was announced: The Office/Scrubs/Earl/Andy Barker/Studio 60. Until it doesn't happen, I'll believe in it.

I think NBC thinks Heroes will be their Lost, but I don't see a place for them to put it where it could break out. More likely, it will be their Alias: A critically acclaimed cult hit that never quite gets to breakout hit status.

The signing of Jason Katims to be the showrunner for Friday Night Lights gives me hope for that show (I thought the movie was one of the most underrated American films in recent years).

But they've renewed too much damn stuff. They should have ditched Apprentice and at least one L&O and probably Crossing Jordan. They're going to end up in the same situation next year that they were in this year, and they'll over-expose Deal or No Deal to compensate.

Ah well. Such is life under Zucker.

(After this discussion, NBC picked up Andy Barker for a six-episode midseason run. In addition, it picked up Friday Night Lights and Heroes, as well as Tina Fey. -- TV)

One other issue: Which of these four will make The CW: Everwood, One Tree Hill, Supernatural or Veronica Mars?

Jace: For the love of God, I really hope that Veronica Mars makes into onto the CW's schedule. I have a feeling it will, given its cult status and ethnically-diverse cast, which is a prerequisite handed down by CW prez Dawn Ostroff. I have a feeling that we'll be back in Neptune next season...

Todd: After last night's finale, if Veronica Mars doesn't come back, I will bite my pillow. It deserves a third season where it runs when it's supposed to run without sports preemptions after a show that's a better lead-in (Gilmore is perfect). If it's still doing poorly after that, I will completely understand if it's canceled. But this show is just breathtaking right now, and I can't wait to see what they do in a college setting.

Paradoxically, I think it's the most likely of the four I listed to be renewed, even though it's the lowest-rated of the four. And Everwood, the highest-rated of the four, is probably in the most trouble (the fact that it's not a WB or Paramount production AND the fact that it must be pretty expensive to shoot in Utah are dooming it, I think). Really, though, all I want to see is the cancellation of One Tree Hill. I've never understood that show's appeal.

After a few days, we had this addendum discussion.

Todd: What "type" of show is going to be the next breakout hit? I say traditional sitcom or lawyer drama. I'm sure some of you will disagree.

Jon: Single Camera sitcoms I think will go over the edge this fall. I think Earl has at least given people the appetite for them, and they do the best among 18-49ers.

Todd: I'm. . .skeptical, to say the least, but you already know that. Still, it could happen. I'm keeping an eye on 20 Good Years, a deliberately classicist show with actors people know and writers who've been in the comedy game for a long time. It will probably suck.

Which pilots intrigue you most? Which do you have absolutely no interest in?

Jon:
The Andy Richter pilot sounds very promising, so I can't wait to see that. And the final result of Studio 60 will be intriguing to see. Otherwise, not too much has sparked major interest.

As for my thoughts, you guys have covered a lot of ground, though there IS the matter of what ABC does about DWTS. The current rumor is that it starts up in Sept. 13 (Thats a Wednesday) and then goes back to Thursday/Friday. It was a major success on both nights, but it didn't leave much of a mark afterwards. Yeah, Survivor is at a series low, but that has hardly helped the night. And everyone has forgotten about Crumbs and In Justice. Obviously they need something that appeals to old folks and the whole family (Something neither of those two shows did). What pilots do they have right now that can do that?

Todd: I think Ted Danson could do that. Or maybe the pregnant couple show.

And a few days after that, I tried to come up with a plausible new schedule for NBC, using what we know now.

Todd: Sunday:
7:00 p.m. EDT/6:00 p.m. CDT: Football Night America (I can't remember the name)
8/9: Football

On the West Coast, a variety of Law & Order reruns will be shown after the game.

Monday:
8: Deal or No Deal
9: Heroes
10: The Black Donnellys

A solid night of television all around. Deal or No Deal's family audience should flow nicely into Heroes, and the parents can stick around for Black Donnellys.

Tuesday:
8: Scrubs
8:30: The Singles Table
9: Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip
10: Law & Order: SVU

A solid line-up. Should appeal to young comedy fans for the first two hours..

Wednesday:
8: Deal or No Deal
9: Kidnapped
10: Law & Order

They say they're not going to run Deal three nights a week next year, but I don't believe them. This being NBC, they'll also try to combat a serial hit (Lost) with another serial. Dumb.

Thursday:
8: My Name Is Earl
8:30: 20 Good Years
9: The Office
9:30: Untitled Tina Fey Project
10: ER

Not moving ER is dumb. But that lineup otherwise is super solid, provided they don't just KEEP calling it the Untitled Tina Fey Project.

Friday:
8: Deal or No Deal
9: Las Vegas
10: Medium

Again, pretty solid.

Raines holds for an opening at midseaon. Friday Night Lights, L&O: Criminal Intent and Crossing Jordan hold for the Sunday night midseason lineup. Andy Barker: PI slips in to the Thursday night lineup at midseason somewhere. NBC picks up at least two more comedies for midseason (Community Service, I would bet). The Apprentice returns at midseason as well (probably stepping in for one of the Deal or No Deals).

Of course, this CAN'T be real because I haven't put Dateline in anywhere yet, and you KNOW that'll be back.

Deal or No Deal overexposure aside, this would be the best NBC schedule in years.

(And since I wrote this, NBC looked likely to move Friday Night Lights to fall.)

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